Waiting for the “Click”

During Lent and since I spent a lot of time reflecting on the role alcohol plays in my life. As part of this work I have done some basic research into what is considered healthy levels of alcohol consumption.  This should not be surprising.  So often when it comes to things like our health we turn to quantifiable measures.

What I found was a huge range of what qualifies as “excessive” when it comes to drinking.  It varies first and foremost by gender.  Across the board men can drink more than women and still stay within the “healthy” range.  But from there the variations spread out over such a range as to become confusing. For an idea check out this article that gives a thorough overview.  But ultimately, the measure depends upon who and where you ask.  Contrast this article from the UK to the CDC’s recommendations.  I suspect it also varies just as widely depending on when in history you were asking as well.

The point is that there is not universal agreement as to the numbers.  Indeed some have calling the CDC’s recommendations into question.  For example in New Zealand it is recommended that a man consume no more than 1-2 drinks per day with a cap of 14 drinks per week.  Moreover, they also recommend not drinking on 2 days per week.  At the more liberal end countries like Italy or the UK can allow for 3-4 drinks per day (although it varies depending on which source you consult).

While it is clear that everyone thinks there are limits on how much booze we drink before it becomes a problem it seems to me that there is a more compelling and important question to be asked here.  Just why do we drink?  If we are really going to understand drinking in the context of health then I think we need to take an equally candid look at why we drink.  So perhaps it is more helpful in making a true assessment to ask the question of why?  Here there is some literature but again it is widely varied and often focuses only on problematic reasons.  One of the more useful ones I found is here.

But in the end when it comes to assessing our relationship with alcohol many times “why” turns out to be the most important question we can ask ourselves.  Sometimes we drink for positive reasons- to celebrate, to compliment a meal, to enhance time with friends.  Other times we drink to cope with negative things like depression, anger, stress or anxiety.

Of course not all “negative” reasons for drinking are inherently unhealthy.  There is nothing wrong with having a scotch to unwind after a long meeting. But is that the only way you have of coping?  Why are you turning to that bottle?  Is it because you have no other way to manage the difficult feelings inside or is it a compliment to other mechanisms.  Is that drink taking the place of spiritual or emotional resources or is it simply one of many ways you have to help unwind and leave that meeting behind you for the night?

The point is that the “why” matters.  Those of us who drink have lots of different why’s.  And many times they are circumstantial.   When we come back from that stressful meeting we will not always choose to cope with it by having a drink. Maybe sometimes instead of the drink you might go a for a run to burn off the stress?  Or you might sip on that drink while venting to your spouse as well.   Indeed, having a variety of why’s and more importantly  a variety of ways of coping with the negative ones would seem to be indicate a healthier relationship with alcohol.   But when the reasons we drink becoming fewer and more consistent, it is then that we have to be especially vigilant.

catI can think of no more poignant example of an unhealthy “why” than the character of Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  I saw this play years ago at McCarter Theater in Princeton and this scene left an indelible impression.  Indeed in those times when I have turned to alcohol to cope with stress or to otherwise help me quell some inner demon, I have replayed it in my own mind, wondering if I too am looking for that “click.”

              Brick: Somethin’ hasn’t happened yet.

             Big Daddy: What’s that?

             Brick: A click in my head.

             Big Daddy: Did you say “click”?

             Brick: Yes sir, the click in my head that makes me feel peaceful.

             Big Daddy: Boy, sometimes you worry me.

            Brick: It’s like a switch, clickin’ off in my head. Turns the hot light off and the                   cool one on, and all of a sudden there’s peace.

            Big Daddy: Boy, you’re, you’re a real alcoholic!

            Brick: That is the truth. Yes, sir, I am an alcoholic. So if you’d just excuse me…

            Big Daddy[grabbing him] No, I won’t excuse you.

            Brick: Now I’m waitin’ for that click and I don’t get it. Listen, I’m all alone. I’m                   talkin’ to no one where there’s absolute quiet.

            Big Daddy: You’ll hear plenty of that in the grave soon enough.

For the fully dramatic effect you can watch the scene here.

Why do we drink?  What are we looking for that drink to do for us?  As much as “how much” and “how often” these are also the questions we need to be asking ourselves as we assess our relationship with alcohol.  As much as I love beer the fact is I cannot drink as much as I might sometimes like and hope to remain healthy, not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and relationally as well.  As a result I have to keep looking at my habits and asking that vital question, why?   Because if we are looking to booze to bring us peace, we might find temporary relief, but it cannot ever truly silence our inner demons.

If you have ever wondered about the health of your drinking habits do please check out the links in this post.  This story from NPR includes some links that offer assessment and tips for learning how to drink in more moderation.

What’s Better than Jesus?

It seems like a trick question doesn’t it?  Naturally the answer could only be even more Jesus.  And on Easter 2015 this was both a theological and a beer-o-logical truth at the rectory.

First let me begin with an apology for my absence.  You would think that once Easter is over all we priests can get back to our usual schedules of working one day a week.  Sadly, this is not the case.   Because no sooner do we catch our breath from Holy Week and Easer than we are confronted by the mountain of work we set to the side in order to deal with Holy Week and Easter in the first place.  So please forgive the lack of new content.

But getting back to Easter, you may recall this year it marked not only the holiest day in DSC_4199the Christian calendar but also the end of my alcohol fast.  So how to celebrate?  Well once the Easter services and family meal were over I opted for Evil Twin’s, Even More Jesus and a fine Cuban cigar (specifically a limited edition 2011 Hoyo De Monterrey petit torpedo).

From the moment I spotted the bottle I knew this had to be my Easter beer.  I don’t usually go in for a bottle just because of its name or label art, but every once in a while one just grabs my attention.

That was certainly the case for this Imperial Stout.  The color was suitably dark and the mouthfeel was pleasantly thick.  It was rich with coca, dried fruit and coffee yet for me what set it apart from the many other good Imperial Stouts I’ve tried was the level of smokiness.  This was not only pleasant on its merits but also helped the beer fuse beautifully with the cigar.

Now it should be noted that EMJ clocks in at 12% ABV so it took me about 3 hours to finish off the 22 oz bottle but that was just fine by me.  I was in no hurry.  My work for the day was done.  Hymns had been sung and incense swung.  Eggs gathered by adorable children and many hands shook.  Food prepared, table set and family fed. Jesus had risen and I was truly blessed to be surrounded by family and friends.  What better way to celebrate than with even more of the same.

It’s the Final Countdown!

Cue music.  Doo do do dooo, doo do do do doo…  

As I write this it’s less than 11 hours till I get to Europefinally break my Lenten fast. (Point of information:  Lent is officially over at the conclusion of the Great Vigil of Easter later tonight!)  It’s been a journey, that’s for sure.  There has been temptation and craving cropping up all along the way.  But as I approach the end of this forty days of exploration and discovery, I wanted to share with you the most unusual experience of this soon to be concluded fast.

Several weeks ago I was faced with a dilemma.  Our parish beer club had a meeting scheduled and none of the other members who might otherwise lead it in my stead was available.  The question before me was simple: cancel the meeting or try to lead a beer tasting without actually being able to drink any beer….

Since the whole point of this experiment was to push myself, I chose the latter.  And so I set out to lead a discussion on beers that might be considered “Misfit Toys.”  IOW when you think of Sierra or Stone you tend to think of very hop-forward beers.  Heck, SN even hops the heck out of their Bigfoot Barleywine.  But they also make some lagered beers that tend to fly under our collective radar.  And so that’s the kind of thing we drank… session beers from Southern Tier and Weyerbacher, American influenced Pale Ales from Belgium and the like.  Sometimes our conclusion was simply that the brewery ought to stick with what they got famous for and quit trying to branch out… Guinness Blond Lager??? Simply awful.  On the other hand we found a hidden gem… Weyerbacher’s Last Chance IPA was the winner of the night being not only an excellent beer, but a surprisingly sessionable one too from a brewery that is best known for beers ranging in the 9% plus ABV range.

But what was it like to pour and pass out round after round without actually being able to indulge?  Not as hard as you might think.  I even smelled each round to try to be able to participate in the discussion.  In some ways being in public made it easier….  I didn’t want to slip up n front of my friends and parishioners.   I don’t know if I could have restrained myself as easily had I been pouring and sniffing them alone at home.

The whole experience helped reinforce my confidence that I could be around beer and not be so tempted as to become uncomfortable.  But it was just one of many memorable and occasionally forgettable moments of this Lenten journey.  I look forward to sharing more about it with you next week.  But for now…. I mostly just look forward to ending it because “It’s the final countdown!”

The Walk to St. James Gate

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In honor of St Patrick’s Day I am re-posting one of my soggiest beer drinking adventures.  Hope you enjoy it.  Slainte!

Rain in Ireland is nothing new.  In fact, Kevin, my friend and host, during my summer 2011 trip told me that in Ireland you can experience all four seasons in a single day.

From the time of my arrival the daily rain quickly showed that my Columbia (and allegedly water resistant) jacket was not going to suffice.  Fortunately Kevin had a spare one from Patagonia that seemed to be working much better… that is until I decided to walk across Dublin in it in a steady rain.

I had weighed the decision for a couple of days now… should I bother to visit the famous Guinness Storehouse Brewery at St. James Gate while I was in Dublin or not?  It was without a doubt one of the most touristy things one can do…. right up there with the Blarney Stone it was something in my mind that only yokels stooped to do.   Yet I was also working to launch my blog dealing with reflections on beer and beer culture.  It was a only supposed to be a 15-20 minute walk… how could I pass it up?  So I headed out from just south of St. Stephen’s Green on my quest for the fabled “Perfect Pint.”

For those of you who don’t know me, I suck with maps.  There is something wrong with my internal compass.  I very easily get all turned around and head off in the opposite direction that I should be going in.  Now combine this misfortune of fogged up glasses and the inexplicable reality that Dublin seems to have no street signs whatsoever (and when I say none, I really do mean none) and the end result is that what should have taken no more than about 20 minutes took more like an hour.  And did I mention it was raining?

Anyway, the Patagonia had long since succumbed to the Irish weather and as the time was dragging on I began to second guess my decision…. Should I just give up, turn around and find a nice dry pub to warm up in?  But while one can certainly impugn my sense of direction and perhaps also my judgment and maybe even my intelligence, one thing you can never question is my stubbornness.

And so I stuck with it.  Eventually I got turned in more or less the right direction and at long last the brewery was in sight.  I kept walking even when it became apparent that I had chosen the wrong approach to finding the entrance to the 55 acre complex.  So instead of walking down the correct side and turning right to the entrance I walked the extra kilometer or so the wrong way around the perimeter.  Add to this that it was now 4:45 and they stopped letting folks in at 5:00 so the time was also adding to my anxiety.

Of course even with my wrong turns I eventually got there.  Upon entering I found there was a long queue of other wet and tired tourists who were also pushing their luck that afternoon.  While waiting to buy my ticket we were told that because of a private function that night that we had to go straight to the top to the Gravity Bar on the 7th floor and get our pint first and that then on the way back down we could take the self-guided tour.

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Part of the cool 360 degree view from the Gravity Bar

When I finally got to the front of the line I was shocked to find that the ticket for this cost not the 5 Euro I had been told but was in fact a whopping 15 Euro which translates to $21.30 given the exchange rate that day.  Again, I had second thoughts… $21 bucks for a pint?  That made the beer that I was told I had to rush up to get the most expense pint I had ever purchased.  But I had come this far and so was not about to turn back.

As I packed into the elevator with a group of German tourists I began anticipate the beer.  The room was circular and did indeed fulfill their claim that it offered the best views of Dublin.  Anyway, after standing in line for a while I finally held the glass in my hands.  I tried to savor the moment… to really analyze the appearance of the dark liquid still churning up its foamy head.  However the culmination of my relief at finally arriving, my thirst and the power of the moment simply got the better of me and I took a long first sip.

I sincerely wish I could say that that I had some sort of a transcendent moment… that brewing angels sang and that my perseverance was somehow rewarded with a once in a lifetime taste experience.  It was not so.  While the pint was indeed a good one and in fact seemed to have a bit more of a roasty character than the Guinness I had gotten elsewhere, it was not the Nirvana-in-a-glass that I had been hoping for.Image

I contemplated this as I walked back down the seven floors and perused the displays.  Had it all been worth it?  Had I made the right decision?  Had I been foolish not to turn back?  Perhaps.  Had I stayed in the City Center area I would no doubt have had different experiences and they likely would have been interesting, drier and probably a good deal less frustrating.  However, (and I suppose this is where I finally get around to the spiritual part of this post) I choose to believe that everything happens for a reason.  The reasons for my journey to St. James’ Gate are not yet fully clear to me and in fact may never be.  I will say that they lead to some interesting experiences in a local’s only pub in the Liberties neighborhood on the way back, but that as they say, is another story.   But even with that in mind, I am left to ponder the purpose of my journey.

What did God have in mind for me that day?  What did I miss out on?  What did it teach me about myself?  About my capacity for stubbornness?  What did God want me to learn from my perfect, but still less than satisfying, pint atop of Dublin?  I may never fully know but I still choose to believe that it all still served a purpose and in the end it is one thing I can check off my beer bucket list.

Half Empty or Half Full?

It’s that classic question- half-empty or half-full?  Now that I am reaching the halfway half-empty-half-full-imagepoint of my Lenten alcohol fast it is a good time to stop and reflect.

On the plus side, most evenings I don’t even miss the beer.  It’s been long enough now that my habits have changed.  At suppertime I no longer have to stop myself from heading towards the basement stairs and the beer fridge that stands at the bottom of them.  As the night winds down I no longer find myself glancing up at the liquor cabinet on my way out of the kitchen.  Yes, in general this Lenten experiment in discipline has gone about as well as I could hope.

Of course it has not been without its struggle.  For example, after a five hour, highly charged governance meeting, I wanted nothing more than to have a bourbon in my hand when I collapsed into my living room chair.  The other instance when I found myself severely tempted occurred last weekend when I was out with friends celebrating a birthday.

After our initial plans fell through (thanks Erin Express for turning University city into a zoo where every restaurant had a 90 minute plus wait) we headed west to Dock Street.   While it was odd to be in a place dedicated to good beer (Man Full of Trouble Porter anyone?) I had no problems ordering and fetching the first round for my companions while sipping away on ice water.  Yet I still found that I had to consciously check myself, not in combatting the desire to order a pint of my own, but in resisting the urge to sample the beers my companions ordered.

This was not so much about the alcohol as it was about a different dynamic- something fundamentally social. One of the joys of going out with close friends is sharing what we order.  When the pizzas arrived we all shared a slice with anyone who wanted to try it and tried some of theirs in return.  It seems to me that such practice not only improves the meal by expanding our culinary horizon, it also strengthens the bonds of friendship.  As a result I had to actively resist the urge to ask for a sip of their Belgian Quad or Kolsch, not because I wanted the booze but because I wanted to know what it tasted like.  While it was a good learning experience, it wasn’t particularly fun.

So here I am at the halfway mark.  And while I know that twenty booze-free days (and nights) still lie ahead, I am not worried.  For I also know that with few exceptions it will only get easier as I go along.  And even when it’s hard, I know those times of trial and temptation create the greatest opportunity to learn.

Please keep those questions and supportive thoughts and prayers coming!

I’ll have a G&T, hold the G

top_invisibleOne of my favorite things about Friday afternoon is sitting in my chair and watching a little TV while our dinner cooks in the oven.  More often than not, a Gin and Tonic helps complete the picture.  I’ve liked them since college and when I’m out and can’t find good beer, a nice G&T is my default drink.

This past Friday however I knew that this custom was not an option.  That’s because last week saw the start of Lent and once again I have chosen to give up alcohol. And so as it drew past five o’clock I found myself wishing I could head to the cupboard where we keep the booze.  Since I couldn’t I decided to try the next best thing.  I filled a glass with ice and cut a nice thick slice of lime which I squeezed in.  I cracked open a fresh bottle of Seagram’s  tonic and slowly filled the glass.

It tasted, well, like tonic and lime.  But there was something else beyond just the tartness on my tongue or the effervescence that tickled my upper lip as I drank it.  Even though there wasn’t a drop of alcohol in it I could still feel myself relax.  Satisfied, I took my drink into the living room and kicked back in front of the TV.  And suddenly all was right with the world.

This phenomenon got me to wondering about the complex nature of our habits and B.F._Skinner_at_Harvard_circa_1950dependencies.  I’ve studied enough psychology to know something of operant conditioning.  In fact, BF Skinner is a fellow alum of Hamilton College. Therefore I understand that we can become almost as addicted to the stimuli associated with the high as to the high itself.  For example people who are trying to quit smoking can find it comforting to hold an unlit cigarette.  But it was something else altogether to experience it for myself.

All this got me to thinking about our habits and how much power they can have over our lives.  What happened in my case was not so much about the alcohol as it was that I was accustomed to having a specific kind of drink on a specific day at a specific time.  Such insight can be valuable if you are also following some kind of Lenten fast or otherwise trying to change your life.

It’s hard enough to make real changes in our lives.  It gets even harder if we are trying to not only forego a vice but also habits that are so often associated with them.  Learning to recognize if there are any particular circumstances associated with the problem is the best place to start.

Sometimes it is as simple as changing those circumstances.  If you are trying to stop eating candy but you are in the habit of grabbing some every time you walk by the cabinet where it is always kept, the first thing you should do is move the candy to somewhere less accessible.  Or you can do what I did and find something to substitute for the problem substance but that will allow you continue to observe the ritual associated with it.

That’s all for now… I think I hear that bottle of Tonic calling my name.  Five days down, thirty five to go.

No Bourbon, No Scotch, No Beeeeeer- The Redux

Lent is almost upon us. Now Lent is a 40 day long season during which many Christians no beergive up pleasurable things like junk food or sweets. I usually observe Lent in this way too often by giving up something like deep fried food.  Two years ago, I pushed myself and gave up alcohol.

After reflecting on all the questions raised about clergy and addiction raised by the Heather Cook/Tom Palermo tragedy, I have again decided to take a break from booze.  Starting Wednesday its no booze till Easter.  Thankfully, I will get a break on Sundays which are not counted as part of Lent.  Even so, I know it won’t always be easy.

As you probably have guessed by now, I love beer.  It’s a regular part of my life.  By giving it up I want to make sure the role it plays is not unhealthy or out of balance.  This is important because although I do not believe I have a problem with alcohol I do realize that I am more likely to want a drink in times of stress.   By going without it, I hope to gain insight into this drive and at the same time, develop other and healthier methods of coping that don’t require a bottle opener.

Now those of you who know their Bible  might be wondering if I am acting like those religious leaders that Jesus condemned in Matthew 6:1 when he said,  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  It’s a legitimate question.  Believe me when I say that I am not sharing this so you will think I am holy.  Just ask my wife, I’m anything but.

Instead, I am sharing this with you so that Christians, and in particular, Episcopalians, will keep talking about the role alcohol plays in our lives and in our church.  This is especially important for the clergy.  Our vocation is not easy.  And all too often we wind up choosing unhealthy ways of coping with the stress.  Yet because we feel pressure to live up to the impossible standards that are set for us (or that set for ourselves), we usually try to hide our inevitable failures.  The result is that far too many deacons, priests and bishops don’t actually know the freedom in Jesus that we proclaim to others but instead live as prisoners of our addictions and denial.  This is incredibly destructive not only for our own lives and families but for our parishes and for the Church as a whole.

And so now as we continue to sift through the very public and heartbreakingly tragic consequences of one such failure, I want to share the next forty days of questions and challenge with you.  It may not make much difference to anyone but me.  But maybe, just maybe, if we commit to sharing honestly with one another about the place alcohol plays in our lives we might be able to prevent the next tragedy from happening.

More  than ever I welcome your questions, experiences and support.